(First published at Thirteen O’Clock – March 2012)
Title: The Broken Ones
Author: Stephen M Irwin
Publisher: Hachette Australia
Three years ago, on what’s become known as Grey Wednesday, the world became haunted. Everyone suddenly acquired a personal ghost – a friend, a lost sibling, an ex-spouse, an enemy – which is unshakable as a shadow. These peering, silent phantoms have driven millions to despair, and the global economy is in freefall.
Stephen M Irwin’s follow up to his first novel The Dead Path (2010) is an engrossing blend of the supernatural and police procedural with a dash of the apocalypse – a combination that doesn’t disappoint.
In the novel, the world has virtually been turned upside down in the wake of “Grey Wednesday” – a disaster of gargantuan proportions that saw the Earth’s poles shift, creating all manner of destruction, with earthquakes and planes plummeting out of the sky. Worse still, everyone in the entire world (including Brisbane, where the story is set), suddenly found themselves haunted by the ghosts of their past, with long-dead relatives, friends, lovers and enemies following them around.
Everyone has to learn to live with their ghosts, but with society an absolute wreck, some can’t handle the stress and crimes like murder flourish. With the existence of the supernatural now living proof, many of these murderers are quite happy to use the term “the ghosts made me do it” as readily as they draw breath.
Which brings us to Detective Oscar Mariani; the lead officer of a unit tasked with investigating crimes believed to have been perpetrated by ghosts. It’s his job to separate the real murderers from the ghosts and, given that the majority of his suspects are very much alive, his job doesn’t carry much success, prestige or respect.
But when Oscar is called to a gruesome scene of a young girl with occult symbols carved into her flesh, the possibility of supernatural involvement is all too real. Oscar of course becomes obsessed with the case, all the while trying to reconcile the mistakes of his own past and handle the politics within a seemingly corrupt police force.
Oscar’s “mistake” is a core thread of Irwin’s marvellously intricate plot. The detective’s own ghost is a young boy who appeared before Oscar as he was driving, forcing the detective to crash his car with tragic consequences.
In Oscar, Irwin gives us the classic flawed hero; a tortured soul seeking redemption, but the author brings him to life with such clarity, that the mystery almost becomes secondary. The supernatural element of the novel evolves as the story progresses, moving the focus off the ghosts and more towards Persian mythology and there’s also terrifying monsters of the feathered variety lurking in the shadows, but it’s all just lying under the surface.
There are of course sub plots a plenty, including Oscar’s tenuous relationship with his former cop father, his tenuous relationships with other police officers who were once his friends and, his tenuous relationships with the lives of the families Oscar destroyed with his “mistake” on Grey Wednesday, but as in all good tales, everything weaves together in perfect symmetry to a horrific and tragic climax.
With simple language that is still somehow powerfully evocative, Irwin paints the perfect picture of a Brisbane gone terribly wrong and a man who seeks justice for a murdered girl and his own atonement. It’s a grand supernatural murder mystery that would even, dare I say it, some of today’s best thriller writers a run for their money and is well deserving of its recent Honourable Mention in the finalist list for the 2011 Aurealis Awards.
It would be good to see Irwin return to this world in the future and perhaps give us more ghosts of the past. The post-apocalyptic premise he has created is a unique one and deserves more exploration in his distinctive style, but whatever he writes next I’ll certainly be lining up for a copy.